While we’re all stuck inside games are one means to help us scratch that exploring itch, helping us discover new worlds or simply get a bit of a change of scenery. Early in lockdown, Animal Crossing dominated headlines partially because it offered just that, an opportunity for a world forced indoors to be able to explore forests, make new friends and feel like they are spending time in some green space. A Short Hike takes the best moments of that feeling, as well as cues from a variety of other masterpieces, and creates a beautiful and endearing adventure that is well worth your time.
At its core, A Short Hike is pretty straightforward. It very much does what it says on the tin; you play as a bird that is staying on an island and must undertake a not-overly-long hike to the top of a mountain. To do this, you need to collect golden feathers to ensure you are able to climb or glide to the summit. These golden feathers are obtained through exploring, spending money that you find around the island, or by helping out fellow islanders. It is a wonderful mix of a linear adventure and a sandbox to explore – a mini-open world with one overarching goal. Because of this combination of an open-narrative but singular goal it actually feels incredibly freeing. You know your basic mission but you are left alone to explore the island and complete tasks as you see fit. You by no means need to retrieve all available golden feathers to reach the summit, so you can pick and choose which characters to interact with and what tasks to complete.
The tasks, and the minor characters that they centre on, make up part of the backbone of this game and thankfully they are interesting, funny and varied. The other islanders made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions, playing up to gaming tropes (one ridiculed me for expecting a reward for helping them out) and often having their own obstacles to tackle. The tasks range from races, shell collecting, fishing and parkour. Completing them doesn’t always reward a feather, but can result in other tools to aid your exploration. Each task I did was worthwhile, and none got boring or repetitive.
The other key factor that A Short Hike would stand or fall by is the island itself. Fortunately, it’s a joy to explore. The controls can be a bit fiddly at times, but that minor gripe aside, soaring (or running) up snowy peaks, through forests or around towers and tents can feel truly adventurous. There is no in-game map, but signposts litter the landscape and the world is small enough you are rarely lost for long. Frankly, the times I did wander a bit off the beaten path and lose my footing were my favourite in the game. The feeling of finding something new, another treasure to open or maybe a precious golden feather, keeps you pushing forward and the make-up of the island is very much a part of this.
This varied landscape is also genuinely beautiful. The view from the top is enchanting, while the forests and lakes (as well as the emotive residents) are lovingly designed. The cel-shaded style suits the animal-based adventure wonderfully, partly feeling cartoony but also able to draw you in. The peaceful tranquil lakes and beaches of the foothills are replaced by howling peaks and paths that offer a genuine threat to your climb. The style lends itself to the emotions that the landscape draws out in you, from the harsh man-made constructs of a mining area to moments of calm spent fishing with pals at the lake. The music also helps you along the way, being particularly noticeable as you progress to your goal, ranging from triumphant soaring notes to delicately placed pieces during moments of reflection.
Your journey to the top of the mountain feels like an important one. Ostensibly you are reaching the peak to get phone signal, but from your character’s dialogue it feels like more than that. Suggestions of listlessness, a lack of purpose and perhaps even a sense of depression seem to linger in your characters words. Reaching that peak, and helping out islanders, isn’t just about making that phone call. It’s about achieving something, feeling like today wasn’t wasted. Maybe this is 3 months trapped inside talking, desperately searching for productivity and feeling endlessly helpless, but I found this wholly relatable and added a tinge of sadness, but also ultimately triumph, to the ascent.
For such a narratively focused game, there is a surprising amount to do once you have finished the main goal. As soon as the credits had rolled, I jumped straight back in. Not needing to complete all the tasks to finish your trip means that there are a range of activities left for you, depending on how you prepared for your initial climb. For me, there were entire sections of the island I hadn’t properly explored and extra feathers in clear view I hadn’t yet retrieved. There were fish to catch, animals to race and more cliffs to climb. Essentially the story-focus is replaced with a simple, but inviting, open-world to explore at your own pace. This time there is no clear end goal, I was there purely because it is such a charming place to spend some time.
When playing through A Short Hike I couldn’t help comparing it to other games. The soaring finale, particularly with the music, and the central construct reminded me of Journey. The mountain metaphor and the focus on mental health got me thinking of Celeste. The forests and fish, tasks and animals to befriend, had real Animal Crossing vibes. All these games are, in my mind, masterpieces so I mean no disrespect by these comparisons. But A Short Hike is so much more than that, it is not just a patchwork of other games but truly something special in its own right.
During this time of isolation, where parks and trees seem so far away, A Short Hike gave me the adventure I needed and a reminder how truly special gaming can be. I cannot recommend it enough.